STAMFORD – A Democratic primary for four Board of Representatives seats has ended with one win for a party supporter, one win for a party reformer, and two recounts.
The results illustrate the divide within the city’s long-dominant party.
It has to do with whether Democrats owe allegiance to the party, or whether they are free to act as representatives, said city Rep. Nina Sherwood, majority leader of the Board of Representatives and leader of the reform Democrats.
“The Democrats in this city are split. There is a large section of Democrats who do not want business as usual,” Sherwood said Wednesday, the day after the primary. “They want something different from city government. They think government is not working for them and the establishment of the Democratic City Committee does not represent them. The better thing for the party would be to be tolerant of other people’s opinions, which is what the Democratic Party is supposed to be about – tolerance and compassion.”
Robin Druckman, chair of the Stamford Democratic City Committee, said that goes both ways.
“Ms. Sherwood has made it her mission to work in opposition to the Democratic Party since 2017, when she launched her ‘reform’ slate, yet she continues to be a member of the very party she works against and benefits from,” Druckman said Wednesday. “Instead of coming after the Democratic City Committee, Ms. Sherwood should put aside her personal agenda and work collaboratively and respectfully towards solutions that benefit the people of Stamford — such as advancing the development of much-needed affordable housing in our city, an initiative supported by all the candidates … After all, isn’t that the job of the majority leader of the Board of Representatives?”
The board, which has 36 Democrats and four Republicans, has been rejecting measures proposed by the party leader, Democratic Mayor Caroline Simmons.
The most recent ones include a 24-16 vote to put city charter revisions on the Nov. 7 ballot, though Simmons lobbied for the proposals to be delayed until the 2024 election. After Simmons laid out her opposition to six proposed charter changes, the board approved five of them anyway. Then, in a 21-16 vote, the board rejected Simmons’ nominee for the all-important Zoning Board.
In Tuesday’s primary, the party factions went head to head.
How the votes broke
Two of the races will not be decided until a recount tentatively scheduled for Monday morning. The state mandates a recount when the difference between candidates in a race is less than .5 percent of the total votes cast, or fewer than 20 votes. The recount must take place within five business days of the election.
In a low-turnout primary in which a total of 1,565 Democrats voted across four districts, incumbent city Rep. Bianca Shinn, a party loyalist from District 7 endorsed by the Democratic City Committee, got 149 votes. Newcomer Christina Strain, whose platform is more in line with reform Democrats, got 156 votes, according to the Stamford Democratic registrar of voters.
In District 18, Jennienne Burke, who proved to be a party loyalist when she held other elected offices, got 215 votes. Her challenger, Karen Camporeale, got 217 votes. Camporeale was a member of the Charter Revision Commission who voted for changes to the city’s constitution that the mayor opposed.
The remaining two primary races are decided.
In District 20, incumbent city Rep. Carl Weinberg, a party loyalist, defeated challenger Clemon Williams, 338 votes to 230 votes. Like Camporeale, Williams was a member of the Charter Revision Commission who voted for charter changes Simmons did not support.
In District 9, incumbent city Rep. Kindrea Walston defeated newcomer Walter Mardis, 154 votes to 106 votes. Walston was endorsed by the Democratic City Committee but, she says, did not get help from party leaders during her campaign.
Establishment Democrats “say to me that I hate the mayor. Even my challenger told me that I have a vendetta against the mayor. That’s not true. They just want us to fall in line with the mayor even when we disagree,” Walston said. “I don’t always agree, and my job is to support my constituents.”
Differences on development
Her main difference, Walston said, is that much of the development Simmons supports results in high-priced luxury housing units, and ones that are deemed affordable are not truly so.
“We need deeply affordable housing. Too much of what is being built is housing most people cannot afford,” Walston said. “I think the administration has to do more.”
Mardis, by contrast, told CT Examiner during his primary campaign that “the main thing I want to say is what the city needs is a strong mayor, and we have one, and we should do anything we can do to support her.”
Despite her party endorsement, Walston said, she thinks the Democratic City Committee supported Mardis during the primary.
Walston said that, one day during the campaign, she got a call from a constituent in Stamford Green, a West Main Street building that offers lower-cost apartments for seniors. The constituent said Simmons would be visiting, and told Walston she should come.
“I went there and when the mayor got there, Mr. Mardis was right behind her,” Walston said. “I don’t know if he was invited, or if the mayor was campaigning for him in that building, but I know I was not invited.”
Lauren Meyer, special assistant to the mayor and vice chair of the Democratic City Committee, said Simmons’ visit to Stamford Green was the first of several to senior housing facilities.
“The goal of these visits is for the mayor to meet with senior residents and hear about the issues that matter most to them,” Meyer said Wednesday. “This was not a political or campaign event and neither Walter Mardis or Kindrea Walston were invited to attend.”
At one point, Meyer said, Walston “started to engage in political campaigning, referring to herself as the DCC endorsed candidate. At that point, I did interject to remind Representative Walston that this was an official-side mayor’s office event, not a political or campaign event, and it was not the appropriate time to engage residents in that manner. However, I indicated that she was welcome to do so after the mayor finished, which I know she did.”
Points of disagreement
Druckman said “any endorsed candidate can avail themselves of support from the [Stamford Democratic City Committee] or not, when running for office. Ms. Walston chose not to ask for SDCC help with her campaign.”
Democrats know when not to ask, Sherwood said.
“In Stamford, if you are not obedient to the Democratic Party establishment, they will do almost anything to silence you,” Sherwood said. “It’s been going on since before I got involved in Stamford politics in 2017. In fact, I got involved because of what they were doing.”
Druckman said she doesn’t know about any repercussions.
“Ms. Sherwood is the one who waged primaries in District 20 and District 7 against two sitting endorsed Democratic Board of Representative members because she doesn’t like how they vote,” Druckman said. “In fact, she chaired the slate campaign, actively canvassed, and fundraised in opposition to the [Democratic City Committee] endorsed candidates.”
The role of city representatives, who comprise the legislative branch of government, is to provide checks and balances on the mayoral administration, the executive branch, Sherwood said.
“If you don’t vote with the Democratic mayor, even though your position on the Board of Representatives is supposed to be one of oversight … you are told by the Democratic Party you should be voting with the mayor otherwise you are embarrassing the party,” Sherwood said. “My answer is the party does not come first; the people come first. If what the party wants is not what the people want, I go with the people who elected me.”
The Board of Representatives races in Tuesday’s primary and the Nov. 7 election “are about candidates who have the courage to stand up to the administration and to special interests, versus the candidates who don’t,” Sherwood said.
“We are not against everything the mayor does,” she said. “Sometimes there are disagreements, and these are the candidates who sometimes disagree.”